Voters approve Prop 203 but implementing law can be hazy

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Arizona has four months to come up with rules and regulations for the new medical marijuana initiative approved by voters but they have their work cut out for them.

Ten years after it was approved in Colorado, officials there are still trying to sort it out.

Everything in Neal Kahn's business is made with marijuana. There are vortex buds, popcorn and peanut butter but Kahn says do not call this a pot shop. "This isn't what a lot of people think, that it’s this hippie pot shop like the old days. This is medical marijuana. It’s no different than going into a pharmacy." There are lots of medical marijuana dispensaries  like Kahn's in Colorado.

Thom Pearson, owner of Home and Again furniture store,  knows, "Oh there is one down here called the Little Brown House, there's one called Walking Raven, Green Depot, THC cut right to the chase I guess."  Those are just the medical marijuana dispensaries Pearson can name, all within a block of his Denver store.

In fact, Colorado has more than 1,000 dispensaries, roughly 500 in Denver alone. In part that's because voters initially did not set up any regulations, they simply approved medical marijuana. 

Boulder Deputy Police Chief Greg Testa says that worked, for awhile. "So when the Obama Administration ... talked about how they would not prioritize enforcement in states where marijuana was legal, well the industry just blossomed in Colorado. It just boomed." 

Just this summer state lawmakers and local communities started crafting new rules about who can buy marijuana, how shops are licensed and where they can be located. Testa says that in Boulder they have been especially sensitive to saturation, "so that businesses cannot be stacked next to each other and the Boulder city ordinance does not allow a medical marijuana business, either a dispensary or grow operation in a residential area." 

Testa says, overall, in Boulder at least, the community has been supportive. "Neighboring businesses that are adjacent to a medical marijuana business, most of the complaints we hear are code violations, that they can smell marijuana through the venting system."

Testa says there have been a few robberies and burglaries at Boulder dispensaries, but so far no violent crimes. There are 113,000 people registered to use medical marijuana in Colorado, which is about 2% of the population. Like Carol Pinigas who says, "I wouldn't be standing here if it wasn't for medical marijuana. I have been in pain for 16 years and they gave me every narcotic they could think of. When the medical marijuana became legal here I went to it immediately, and I was off narcotics the same day." 

Patients do need a doctor’s recommendation and they must apply with the state as well, but how hard is it to find a doctor? We asked in one shop and they gave us a card recommending a doctor and told us to tell the doctor they had sent us.  Several young men we saw going in did not look like they were in much pain. 

When we asked, they told us they had back problems. Pinigas says problems like that should not ruin it for those who she says need medical marijuana. "You know what, if 5% of the people taking marijuana are people that shouldn't have it. I don't care. It is the 95% of people who need it."  Are some people buying legally and re-selling? Deputy Chief Testa says, "I'm sure it happens, but it hasn't become obvious to us as a problem but I'm sure it happens." 

Testa says dispensaries do seem to be trying and, in fact, they were very careful at the Walking Raven, billed as Denver’s first dispensary. When we asked to go in they said no, "You have to have your medical license to even come in the dispensary and then you can go into the outside rooms, and there are products, you can see the medications in there. Edibles, smokeables, whatever it is you feel you need and we try to be very patient-oriented." 

Dispensaries are also shouldering the responsibility of tracking supply. Kathleen Kelly of the Walking Raven says, "Seventy per cent  has to be grown by the dispensaries. So they do have their own warehouses where they cultivate their own medicine." 

Of course not everyone is happy, there are concerns about kids getting marijuana, and the number of stores still concentrated in some communities, but owners like Kahn, say they are trying. "I certainly reach out to all my neighbors, we are in a strip mall. I reach out to all the shopping people. I invite them in to see the place." 

Deputy Chief Testa says even though it is a huge change for everyone, allowing medical marijuana is doable. "It's a mind shift. For years and years and years it was an illegal substance and we wrote tickets and we put people in jail and now we are going to inspect businesses where there is grow operations and it's legal. So you bet it is a change and we have to get used to that."

What is Arizona doing differently? There will be only 124 dispensaries statewide, about the same number as in the city of Boulder, Colorado alone.  Arizona is also much more specific about which elements medical marijuana can be prescribed. 

State officials are also working on monitoring grow operations, although dispensaries will not be required to grow their own as in Colorado. Local municipalities will also be given a voice in zoning.

In the last year Colorado raised $2.2 million in taxes from medical marijuana. At this time medical marijuana will not be taxed in Arizona.